Breaking through: producers warm up to climate change stories

An Inconvenient Truth brought the conversation about climate change to the cultural fore… in 2006. Today's audiences flee from what they see as overly didactic content and now, networks and producers are "smuggling" climate change content into factual programming.
October 9, 2015

An Inconvenient Truth brought the conversation about climate change to the cultural fore… in 2006. Today’s audiences flee from what they see as overly didactic content, and as a result networks and producers are “smuggling in” content about climate change and conservation in their blue chip and factual programming in the hopes that it will resonate.

When U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to Alaska to draw attention to the fight against climate change in early September, cameras were naturally in tow.

The trip was intended to create urgency around the issue, with Obama visiting a melting glacier, a salmon run and a community affected by coastal erosion. His media blitz coincided with the start of the last round of formal negotiations ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.

To bring his message to a wider audience, the president also taped a segment for NBC’s survival series Running Wild with Bear Grylls. The episode, due to air later this fall, is among the crop of climate change-themed programs scheduled in the lead up to the Paris talks.

While some may call Obama’s decision to participate in a reality show gimmicky, his move is indicative of a wider trend in wildlife and environmental-themed programming that is emphasizing entertaining and creative approaches to a subject many viewers consider depressing and off-putting.

Compare Obama’s guest spot on Running Wild to former U.S. vice president Al Gore’s stern-faced delivery in the 2006 box office hit An Inconvenient Truth – a landmark fi lm, yes, but research shows that approach may not be as effective today.

In 2013, an International Broadcasting Trust study found that in a 12-month period, no long-form factual program airing in the UK dealt head-on with climate change. Why not? There was a consensus among British commissioners that the subject was ratings poison and “any attempt to impose views or preach is likely to wreck any chance of reaching an audience beyond those who already have an interest in the subject.”

The report cited Channel 4′s Hugh’s Fish Fight and Sky’s Rainforest Rescue as entertaining and accessible programs and recommended other producers find similarly proactive ways to incorporate environmental themes even if that meant “smuggling in” the hot-button topics.

Two years later, some networks are heeding that message with content that aims to entertain while empowering viewers to take action on curbing climate change and protecting endangered species, by giving them concrete solutions.

“It’s about tapping into people’s passions,” Lucinda Axelsson, a science and natural history commissioning executive at the BBC, explained during a panel on climate change docs during the Sunny Side of the Doc conference in La Rochelle, France last June. “That’s how you get the message across. Talk about things they love.”

Axelsson called the BBC’s approach “climate change by stealth.” Rather than create programs expressly about climate change – which she said do not rate well – the pubcaster has covered the issue through blue-chip wildlife series such as Frozen Planet and Africa.

“Climate change is not something we do in isolation… We’re finding different ways of tackling it,” she explained, adding that shows labeled as climate change docs tend to attract those who already believe it is a problem. “It’s got to read differently.”

One such program was BBC4′s Climate Change By Numbers, in which three mathematicians who have nothing to do with the issue look at the math behind three figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Unboxed Media is prepping the multi-platform Youth4Planet. Set to be shot in September and airing in December, the series is described as “The Apprentice meets Man vs Wild” and takes a group of young people, aged 16 to 21, with big social media followings and sends them to the Arctic to witness the effects of climate change first-hand.

for a few degrees less

For A Few Degrees Less

In the run up to Paris, French network ARTE will air For A Few Degrees Less, a feature doc about climate change negotiator Jeffrey Sachs, and Climate Ops, a doc based on a multi-platform campaign running through the summer that asks viewers to submit video messages to UN negotiators.

Due to premiere on ARTE on October 28, For A Few Degrees Less follows the efforts of Sachs, an American economist and director of The Earth Institute, to persuade countries to cut CO2 emissions in half by 2050. Producers are delivering a one-hour international version that emphasizes the science angle (and thus, has a longer shelf life) as well as a character-driven, current affairs-oriented feature version.

“The aim of the film is to raise awareness and create expectations so the audience can make up their own minds if the Climate Summit has been useful or not,” says Robert Salvestrin, COO at Lucky You, the distribution arm of producer Bonne Pioche. “It takes a ‘Yes we can’ approach: here is the technology, the know-how and knowledge that makes climate change avoidable.”

The doc has been picked up by networks in Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Canada and in the U.S. by digital platform CuriosityStream, but it has yet to find an American broadcast partner.

In the U.S., cable networks Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel have increasingly shifted their focus from reality programming back to core mandates of science and natural history. While that is good news for docmakers, commissioners still want entertaining approaches to subjects, including climate change and conservation.

On December 2, Discovery will globally air The Cove filmmaker Louis Psihoyos’ doc Racing Extinction, which takes a spy thriller approach to the topic of mass extinction. Psihoyos has spent two years working with social impact producer Vulcan Productions to research the effectiveness of climate change and conservation messaging.

“We researched not only all the elements of the fi lm and the style, but even down to the title because it’s really important that you’re luring them in,” says Vulcan’s vice president Carole Tomko. “If you said ‘climate change’ and ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ people just completely tuned that out. They don’t want to see massive graphs showing how the Earth is getting warmer. They’re like, ‘I can’t watch it anymore so give me a piece of information that is relevant to my daily life.’”

To overcome the perception that tackling climate change is heavy-handed and ultimately an insurmountable task, Psihoyos focused on mass extinction and the plight of animals – a topic that people felt connected to – and the ways it impacts everyday life.

For Tomko, a resonant message is one of four elements that make an issue-oriented doc effective. The others are timing (is the audience open to hearing the message?), the platform (social, digital, short-form, long-form) and the potential for a sustained impact campaign.

On August 1, Psihoyos and his OPS team projected footage of endangered species on to the Empire State Building in New York City for scenes that will be included in Racing Extinction. One of the images was of Cecil, a protected 13-year-old lion who was killed by an American hunter in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

The killing sparked global outrage and his inclusion in the projection display – which was trending on Facebook in New York – helped drive social media users to sign petitions calling for bans on the ivory and endangered species trades.

“When you see docs that have all four of those things, you have a much better shot of reaching the audience when they are open to hearing the message,” she says. “You have a much better chance of reaching them in a platform they are willing to engage on and you have a much better shot at the kind of storytelling that they are open to.”

warlords of ivory

‘Explorer’ doc Warlords of Ivory

National Geographic Channel is tackling climate change and conservation-related issues in the rebooted version of flagship doc strand ‘Explorer’ and in series helmed by A-list filmmaking talents.

The ‘Explorer’ premiere in August was Warlords of Ivory, a hard-hitting doc on the ivory trade that, like Racing Extinction, had an undercover thriller element as a journalist used tracking technology to trace the ivory trade routes across Africa.

A future installment will take a lighter approach with help from TV personality Bill Nye. In the episode, Nye visits a therapist who walks him through “the five stages of climate change grief” while imparting hard facts about the matter.

“Our approach is really to take the bedrock of what National Geographic is about as a starting point but to try and be as creative as possible,” says ‘Explorer’ executive producer Robert Palumbo. “There’s been real movement at the network to get back to the core of the National Geographic brand, which is very much about nature and conservation, and climate change and the environment are at the forefront.”

Another part of the strategy involves working with marquee talents who bring added credibility in addition to familiarity. In addition to Nye, director Alex Gibney is helming a series about water conservation called Parched and actor/director Angela Bassett is directing an upcoming episode of the Ron Howard-exec produced anthology strand ‘Breakthrough’ about the California water crisis.

Participant Media-owned cable net Pivot airs the original eco-adventure series Angry Planet, now in its fourth season, and has acquired docs such as History of Water, History of Earth, and Antarctic Edge. Unlike its competitors, the network takes a hard-science approach in order to reach a demographic of conscious consumers.

“The ability to speak really frankly and directly and not with a didactic voice, but with an authoritative and scientific perspective, is truly engaging and we weren’t sure in the beginning that that programming would work,” says Jennie Morris, Pivot’s VP of acquisitions. “We don’t necessarily feel the need to present the case that this is happening, but why it’s happening.”

Angry Planet works well because it touches on extreme weather – a popular topic with distributors. In October, London-based DRG will sell the Weather Channel series Natural Born Monsters, which takes viewers to far-flung locales to meet creatures that have survived extreme weather conditions. Climate change is not the focus so the series is another example of the topic being ‘smuggled in’ to an entertaining format.

Climate change docs also tend to draw backlash from skeptics and denial groups. At Sunny Side, panelists characterized the need to give both sides of the issue equal play – even if one side is contradicting science – as more prevalent in the U.S. and UK than other European markets.

While many of the producers interviewed for this feature agreed journalistic balance is important, they concur that viewers will accept the scientific consensus if the approach is creative and entertaining enough.

“It’s less about debating one side versus another,” says Tomko, “and more about showing an issue that we’re all facing.”

  • This article first appeared in the current September/October 2015 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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